Striped bass were once extinct in the St. Lawrence. Now they're back

With federally backed efforts to restore the St. Lawrence River taking effect, stripers — a popular trophy fish — are making a resurgence. Now Quebec and a provincial fishing organization are asking Ottawa to reassess the fish's endangered status.

Recovery of popular trophy fish could boost economy while proving damaged ecosystems can be repaired

Dale Scullion, owner of Kingfisher Sportfishing, holds up a striped bass he caught in Quebec City this season. He released the fish, as it's illegal to keep them, even if they are caught accidentally. (Facebook)

When Dale Scullion started his fishing guide business in Quebec City 15 years ago, there wasn't a single striped bass to be hooked in the St. Lawrence River.

Nowadays, he said anglers could easily spend the day reeling them in without any special gear.

"Even a grandma, 90 years old, could catch one," Scullion says.

Striped bass, also called stripers or rockfish, were once declared extinct in the St. Lawrence River, and even though the fish appears to be abundant these days, they are strictly protected under the Species at Risk Act, so intentionally catching them is illegal.

But those regulations may be loosened sooner than expected. An official reassessment is taking place in November — three years earlier than planned. 

Lifting the ban on catching stripers could be a boon to the sport fishing industry, as the fish, which typically weighs in at nine to 18 kilograms when mature, has been known to lure in anglers from far afield. 

This is already the case in the Gaspé Peninsula, where fishermen visit in droves with the hope of landing a trophy striper in the Gulf of St. Lawrence.

Gone for 40 years

The Atlantic striped bass is found all along the east coast of North America. Quebec is its northernmost habitat. A separate but related fish, called the Gulf Coast striped bass, is found in the Gulf of Mexico.

However, the predatory fish with the tell-tale dark horizontal stripes on its metallic sides disappeared from the St. Lawrence for 40 years, due to overfishing and habitat destruction during the construction of the St. Lawrence Seaway in the 1950s.

Signs are posted at popular fishing spots all along the St. Lawrence River, warning fishermen that all striped bass — bar rayé, in French — must be released immediately. (Isaac Olson/CBC)

Tougher environmental protection laws and fishing restrictions were the first steps in bringing the fish back.

Striper restoration began in 2002, and just 10 years later, the species had bounced back sufficiently to go from being extirpated — or locally extinct — to endangered.

Normally the committee that assesses the status of endangered wildlife in Canada only takes a fresh look at the status of a species every 10 years. 

However, Quebec's Ministry of Forests, Wildlife and Parks is among those requesting an early reassessment of the population. 

In 2013, James R. Bramlett caught this record 31.5-kilogram striped bass in Alabama's Black Warrior River. (The Associated Press)

The ministry has suspended stocking efforts to avoid "overburdening the habitat," according to a letter signed by deputy minister Line Drouin.

The Fédération québécoise des chasseurs et pêcheurs has also wants an early reassessment, asking the committee to consider all the information collected from fishermen who are sighting stripers along the length of the river.

Protecting spawning grounds

Most striped bass travel in schools, but the larger fish — which can grow a metre-and-a-half in length and weigh as much as 36 kilograms — tend to be solitary.

They can swim as much as 40 kilometres in a day, occasionally venturing upstream from the brackish waters east of Quebec City as far away as Montreal.

Stripers have been confirmed to be reproducing in two different spawning grounds, including in the bay at Beauport, near Quebec City, where the CAQ government has proposed building a third link to the provincial capital.

Protecting those spawning grounds is critical to maintaining the species, said Prof. Pascal Sirois, who teaches fisheries ecology at the Université du Québec in Chicoutimi. For that reason, he said the striped bass's "threatened" status should be maintained.

"We managed to bring this species back," Pascal Sirois who supervises graduate student projects on the ecology of larval and juvenile striped bass in the St. Lawrence River.

"I think it's a beautiful symbol. It is a species that has disappeared because of human practices, without concern for the environment."

Sirois is confident striped bass will continue to flourish in the St. Lawrence River, as long as environmental protection laws are respected.

Those rules have done more than just bring back stripers, he said: the overall health of the St. Lawrence River is much better than it was in the 1950s.

"I'm not saying it's perfect, but conditions are better," said Sirois. "We no longer have half-metre pipes that come out of factories and pollute the river."

Federal strategy renewed

The federal government's striped bass recovery strategy was renewed in June. It includes plans to continue stocking the fish, monitoring their presence and conducting research and public outreach. 

Using a similar strategy, four other native striped bass populations have recovered in the Bay of Fundy and the southern Gulf of St. Lawrence. 

As for Scullion, the fishing guide, he says even if the status of stripers is changed, allowing the fish to be caught, it wouldn't mean much to his sport fishing business. He says right now no bass, striped or otherwise, stays in his boat.

He prefers to run a catch-and-release operation, he said, protecting all fish populations in the river system.

With files from Radio-Canada and Jay Turnbull